Marc Fumaroli, defender of French culture, is dead at 88

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Marc Fumaroli, defender of French culture, is dead at 88
Marc Fumaroli, left, with Henri Loyrette, director of the Louvre, at the Wildenstein & Company gallery in New York, Oct. 25, 2005. Fumaroli, a leading French historian, public intellectual and defender of the French language and culture against American influence and what he called “globish English,” died on June 24 in Paris. He was 88. Bill Cunningham/The New York Times.

by Théophile Larcher

PARIS (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Marc Fumaroli, a leading French historian, public intellectual and defender of the French language and culture against American influence and what he called “globish English,” died on June 24 in Paris. He was 88.

His death was announced by the Académie Française, the official council of guardians of the French language, and the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, a learned society devoted to the humanities. Fumaroli was a member of both.

As a historian, Fumaroli specialized in 17th-century France during the reigns of Louis XIII and Louis XIV, with an emphasis on rhetoric and literature from that period. He was the author of about 30 books.

“He was one of our greatest narrators of the past, as well as a fervent apostle of our cultural heritage,” the Élysée Palace said in statement after his death.

He was promoted to commander of the French Legion of Honor, the third of five degrees of distinction, in 2008 after being named chevalier in 1993 and officer in 2002.

In his writings, in conferences and in his teaching — he held posts at prestigious French universities like the Collège de France — Fumaroli shed light on the evolution of rhetoric, literature and the French language. His breakthrough, “The Age of Eloquence” (1980), is regarded as a fundamental work on the history of French literature, putting the emphasis on rhetoric as a key to understanding its progression.

“This book placed him at the forefront of the tradition of rhetoric in modern culture,” said Antoine Compagnon, a French literature professor at the Collège de France and Columbia University, adding that Fumaroli took inspiration from American philosopher Allan Bloom.

Fumaroli often warned that French culture was being impoverished by ideology, mercantilism, mass consumption and capitalism from within and threatening tides of “American soft power” from without, cultural influences that include a globalized form of English.

He plunged vigorously into cultural debates, especially with the publication in 1991 of his book “The Cultural State: Essay on a Modern Religion,” which examined how successive governments since the 1930s had handled the distinction between culture and mass entertainment.

An excerpt from that book reproduced in “French Cultural Policy Debates: A Reader” (2002), edited by Jeremy Ahearne, pondered why the French Ministry of Culture, despite boasting of “making masterpieces available to the great majority of people,” was not making use of that most populist of mediums, television, which was then in 94% of French homes. And, Fumaroli contended, the ministry was also more interested in promoting cultural treasures as tourism than it was in teaching people about those treasures in any kind of depth.

“It sprinkles its public with information, attractions, cultural variety shows,” he wrote; “it does not educate it, for its practices of animation, like those of leisure clubs, are too ephemeral and superficial to stand in the place of that long and patient work of method and love constituted by true education.”

In a 1996 interview with The International Herald Tribune, Fumaroli weighed in on whether the French system of subsidizing the arts with public money was working, especially in an age when the culture wars tended to pit traditional arts against the avant-garde and high culture against pop culture — “the snobs versus the mods,” as the article put it. He lamented the demise of what he saw as the circumstances that once nurtured great art.

“There was a premium given to contemplation, to a kind of detachment,” he said, “whether aesthetic, philosophical or moral, and it created in Europe great writers, artists, historians, architects who took the time to nourish themselves on a tradition and who addressed themselves to a public that had the time to initiate itself to these things.

“That seems to me to have disappeared,” he continued, “not only in Europe and in America but in Asia. One has the feeling that in this area there are no longer the great figures that we had at the end of the 19th century or the beginning of the 20th.”

Fumaroli was born in Marseille on June 10, 1932, and spent most of his childhood in Fez, Morocco, where he became enamored of literature in his family’s library. His father worked for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and his mother was a teacher.

Returning to France, he obtained an agrégation, or teaching diploma, at the Sorbonne in 1958 before serving in the French Army during Algeria’s war for independence from 1958 to 1961. After years of teaching, he obtained his doctor of arts degree at the Sorbonne in 1976.

Within the academic world, Fumaroli gained notoriety at a time when so-called French theory, a movement of contemporary philosophers with which Fumaroli was never associated, was getting attention in American universities, said Michel Zink, perpetual secretary of the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres.

After “The Cultural State” brought him to a larger, more mainstream domestic audience, he further criticized mass entertainment in “Paris-New York, Round Trip” (2009), a reflection on how art lost a sense of purpose in the digital age, presented in the form of a diary of his trips in the two cities, which he believed to be opposites in their embodiment of the ancient and the modern world.

He wrote acerbic lines on Jeff Koons, who he thought to be more of a marketer than an artist, and who he held responsible for the “pandemonium of pop art.” He later denounced the 2010 Versailles exhibition by Takashi Murakami, a Japanese contemporary artist.

He had been a visiting professor at All Souls College, Oxford, since 1983 and a visiting fellow at Princeton University since 1984. He led conferences at American universities including Harvard, Johns Hopkins and Columbia and was honored with membership in the American Philosophical Society of Philadelphia and the British Academy.

Fumaroli leaves no immediate survivors.

In the 1990s Fumaroli gained membership in two of the five learned societies that constitute the Institut de France; he was seated at the Académie Française in 1995, replacing Eugene Ionesco, and at the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres in 1998.

Though Fumaroli never supported any political party, his opinions often aligned with right-wing figures, various people familiar with his leanings said. He was often interviewed by news outlets with centrist and conservative audiences.

His stances against the use of gender markers for titles or anglicisms in the French language were held by others in the Académie Française, an institution often perceived as conservative and elitist by the French, and such views often led to Fumaroli’s being labeled in the press with terms like “reactionary.” Marc Lambron, a fellow member of the Académie Française, said “anti-modern” suited Fumaroli best.

Jean-Marie Rouart, another member of the Académie Française and an admirer of Fumaroli, put it this way: “He embodied a French tradition of a very high elevation.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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